Professor Franklin’s research gives hope to paraplegics

by Sally March

A remarkable collaboration between Cambridge Vet School and the MRC’s Regenerative Medicine Centre has shown that it is possible to restore co-ordinated limb movement in dogs with severe spinal cord injury.

Pembroke Fellow Professor Robin Franklin was one of the leaders of the study, which took olfactory ensheathing cells (OECs) from the nose of paraplegic dogs and injected them into their spines. For around a decade it has been known that OECs, which support nerve fibre growth that connect the nose to the brain, might also be able to support nerve fibres growth in spinal cords.

In the study of 34 pet dogs which had all suffered severe spinal cord injuries, one group was given a placebo and the other an injection of their own OECs into the damaged area of their spine. According to the findings, reported in the journal Brain, a significant improvement was seen in those dogs injected with OECs, while those injected with the placebo saw no change.

However, whilst researchers are cautiously optimistic that this study might have a future role in the treatments for human beings with similar injuries, it would most likely have to be used together with other treatments and therapies. Although co-ordinated movement did return to the dogs injected with OECs, the new nerve connections only occurred within short distances over the spinal cord, not between the spinal cord and the brain. As a result, other higher functions affected by spinal injury, such as bladder control and sexual activity, did not return.

Professor Franklin was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday 19 November 2012. The interview can be heard on iPlayer, 50:13 minutes into the recording.

More information on the study can be found on the University’s Research News page.

Photo: Wire-haired Dachshund (Lilly M)